Gigantic dust clouds swirling over China are threatening the world's most populous country with the first-ever "ecological meltdown", experts here warn.
The clouds which stretch for thousands of miles over Asia and have even reached across the Pacific to North America are rising from a rapidly growing dust bowl in northern China that far outstrips the notorious one in the United States in the 1930s.
It threatens to drive up the price of food and greatly increase starvation worldwide, and could lead to tens of millions of desperate Chinese environmental refugees.
"No country has ever faced a potential ecological catastrophe on the scale of the dust bowl now developing in China," says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, based in Washington. "Merely grasping its dimensions and consequences poses a serious analytical challenge."
Dust storms have been recorded in China for at least 2,700 years, but they are now increasing alarmingly both in size and in number. The Chinese Meteorological Agency says there were just five major storms in the country in the whole of the 1950s. This rose to 23 in the 1990s. But the first two years of this decade have almost equaled this figure already, with 20.
The storms which peak in late winter and early spring can blot out daylight in Beijing and other cities, make it hard for millions of people to breathe and destroy hundreds of thousands of acres of crops. They have closed schools and airports in South Korea and Japan, and caused a Korean car factory to shrink-wrap its vehicles as soon as they come off the production line to stop them being spoiled.
They have even occasionally crossed the Pacific: one in April 2001 covered the west of North America from Canada to Arizona with dust.
The clouds sweep up millions of tons of precious topsoil from Chinese fields and pastures. Gone in a single day, the soil will take centuries to replace. But this is just the most dramatic symptom of the accelerating spread of deserts across the country, which is home to nearly one in every four people on the planet.
Between 1994 and 1999, the country's Environmental Protection Agency reports, the Gobi Desert expanded by 20,240 square miles, to within just 150 miles of Beijing, New, smaller, areas of desert are erupting all over the country. In all, this "desertification" is affecting 40 per cent of the country's land. Partly as a result, harvests which more than quadrupled between 1950 and 1998 have fallen sharply, even as China's population and appetite grow.
In Ganzu province alone, some 4,000 villages are facing being submerged by drifting sands, and the Earth Policy Institute believes that throughout the country tens of millions of people may be forced off their land, dwarfing the migrations of the "Okies" from the American dust bowl.
The institute blames "over-cultivation, overgrazing, over-cutting and over-pumping" for the escalating catastrophe. Marginal land is being increasingly pressed into cultivation, but quickly turns to dust under the strain. The country's 290 million sheep and goats strip the vegetation off grazing lands. Cutting down forests removes the trees that bind soil to the ground. And excessive pumping of water from underground aquifers dramatically lowers water tables, drying out the earth.
China is belatedly trying to get to grips with the crisis. It is planting 26 million acres a tenth of its grain-growing area with trees. But many die because the soil is already too thin; and, say critics, too many are being planted around Beijing so as to try to "green" the city and clean the air before the 2008 Olympics.
As the crisis continues, Mr Brown predicts, the world will soon feel the pinch. So far China has compensated for its falling harvests by eating stocks, but soon it will have to buy massive amounts of grain on world markets. He warns: "Grain prices could double impoverishing more people in a shorter period of time than any event in history. It would create a world food economy dominated by scarcity rather than by surpluses, as has been the case over most of the last half a century."
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd